The winter of my dreams (Part 1)
Backcountry skiing isn’t just a sport but a way of expressing ourselves in nature. It is the incontrollable laugh as the first flakes of a snowfall touch our faces; it is the butterflies in the stomach when planning a new day out; it is the screams of joy when we get to sign the first lines on a steep powder face; it is getting back home tired enough to shower sitting.
As Henry ‘the snowflake’ puts it “You have to touch the fire to know how the fire feels like”.
What started ‘out of the blue’ on a moody and cold September day, turned out to be some sort of heads-up prelude. For those who, like me, hunt snow as if there was no tomorrow, the 2020/2021 winter has been a white gift! Ninety-two days. Ninety-two times I felt like a little girl about to unwrap Xmas presents. After 10 years playing the winter game in the Swiss Alps, I know how lucky we’ve been!
This wonderful skimo season involved plenty of traveling around, which inevitably means plenty of self-discipline and organization to master T1D and low-carb on the move. Sometimes I did feel like an overloaded snail dragging luggage bigger than me – remember, no car! In this post I will highlight some of my winter trips & adventures with special attention to the planning & management of my type 1 diabetes.
Back to that September day… I was in Scuol – a mountain village in the canton of Graubünden - for work. Just that, what was going on outside wouldn’t let me focus. Another Henry ‘the snowflake’ pill “when conditions are good, I forget to go to the toilet”. The temptation was too strong. The next morning, I headed to the slopes in Engelberg-Titlis for some ‘stone skiing’. It was indeed far from ideal. Yet, just the flow of smooth movements that uphill skiing is, makes me very happy.
Birds of the same feather, flock together. My friend Peter comes up with the idea of climbing Glärnisch – all normal up to here. He wants to bring the skis so that ‘we save time on the snowed part’. I am sceptical that carrying all the weight for hours will make us any faster overall. But, as said, we are snow addicts. The alarm clock is set for 3AM (ouch!). My breakfast consists of keto porridge from Simply Keto soaked in coffee. Big open eyes when I see the ’food’ one of my friends bring along. My pack must now make space for my T1D diabetes supplies. Luckily, not needing glucose for energy has freed up plenty of room. The spike on the Dexcom graph is an overcorrection in the last 30’ of the tour.
And it keeps falling… the first real big snowfall of the season always increases my levels of impatience. The first reports of epic downhills land on our PCs and the game is on! I head to Davos for a couple of days since the road to Flüelapass at 2400m is open. It is not common to go ski touring alone. Mostly out of safety reasons, although, in my opinion, it is ‘the sharing’ what makes this sport so unique. This time I do go on my own since the risk of avalanches is minimal and one can’t always find friends free of obligations during the week!
For this 2-day trip, which was rather spontaneous, little food planning was involved. As I happened to be cooking my winter chicken & veggies soup, I took a big portion of the boiled chicken with me. Let’s be real, Davos isn’t a lost village. I had access to both restaurants and supermarkets. Still, I went for cold meals – salmon & chicken – which allowed me to prepare & eat these anywhere.
Our bodies are so fascinating. ‘Thanks’ to T1DM we get so many insights that would otherwise go unnoticed. No hypoglycemia despite starting the tour with 4u ultra-fast insulin onboard (25g carbs for breakfast & high IR at the moment) + 2u R for the protein. I’m loving my new Nightscout Garmin display – even more since it is showing a flat glucose value at 4.7 mmol/L for 1h45’. Then the type B fun started. A steep and delicate couloir. I had to put some work on the icy wall - mistakes a total no-go! Cortisol gradually raise my blood glucose to 7.5 mmol/L. Here comes the beauty of low carb: I correct the rise with 2u fiasp on the thigh knowing no hypo will come. It doesn’t! No food or glucose during the 5h. Breakfast was satiating and my energy even throughout the tour. I had buried in the snow a delicious aprè-ski meal!
Smells like winter
The main alpine arch is an imaginary line from the Bernina to the Zermatt area which typically works as a weather ‘magic wand’. Quite often, if it is sunny to the north of this arch, it will be sunny in the south. This applies also to snowfalls. Another interesting observation: it tends to snow more often in the north, but when a SW snowfall hits the south side… jackpot!
That happened early December 2020. The biggest snowfall accumulation in a 3-day period ever registered in the Engadin area. When the snow oracle calls… I ANSWER!
Another relatively last-minute trip. I had just gone for ‘winter’ shopping. After doing all the meat portioning & wrapping-for-freezer work, I am left with some delicious pieces of tuna and steak that must be eaten in the coming days.
Luckily I find the only accommodation option in Pontresina checking all the marks: single room, kitchen, fridge, affordable. That on paper, because the friendless of Nora, the hostess of Casa Quadrella, deserves a mention! Engadin is famous for its cross-country skiing terrain. Hundreds of groomed slopes full of young and seniors (mostly seniors, actually) enjoying the bright sun of St. Moritz. After many years promising to try XC skiing, this is the winter! Additionally, I honour the tradition of buying myself a present for every non-diabetic hba1c at my quarterly endo visit: a cool headband 😊
How I fitted the below-listed items in one ski bag + a duffle bag, escapes my understanding:
Full ski touring gear set
Full XC ski gear set
Clothes for 4 days
Food for waaay more than 4 days
All T1D supplies
Goodies: blackroll, computer, book ‘Fat Chance’ by Dr. Robert Lustig.
The skiing was simply epic. Walking through the streets of Pontresina, the anticipation was almost too big. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to sleep before a powder day.
I meet with Patricia ‘the snow oracle’ and Hari ‘Mr. Tadelos’ at the train station. We are heading to Morteratsch, the starting & end point of many epic spring tours; including to the famous Bernina, the highest peak in the Graubünden area.
Chalchagn, a mountain of contrasts https://www.strava.cowm/activities/4466948219
But today we are not heading for the giants. Today, we are heading for the POW. Interestingly, the whole uphill is south-exposed, meaning snow conditions are less ‘exciting’ than the ones we will find later in the downhill. It is very early season, so we are not really sure whether the N steep face will be ‘ready’. Oh but it is! All day long in the shade, the powder is deep enough to avoid ski-stone contact but also not light enough not to trigger an avalanche as we ski it. These are the moments we recall with a big smile during hot summers!
Blood glucose behaves during the tour. In the late afternoon I decide to go for a short XC session. Short but hard for a beginner like myself. The circulating R insulin gives me a couple of hypos. Nothing a bit of dextrose can’t fix. The sunset lights are gorgeous.
Piz Mezdi the freezer, take it or leave it! https://www.strava.com/activities/4470887021
We know what the game is. The sweet spot are N faces between 2000-3000m. For some reason, there are not many skiers around. In fact, Piz Mezdi was waiting for us completely untracked. Good for Hari’s energy levels! He puts a track for the ladies all the way up to the summit. This area of Switzerland is notoriously known for its low temps. We re-name Piz Mezdi as ‘the freezer’. I won’t add much more: the skiing down was as fine as the diamonds sold ‘downstairs’ in St Mortiz.
Feels like winter
I am not a Xmas person but it was saddening to miss the family time in Spain this year. No traveling allowed without long quarantines… anyway, luckily my Swiss-based friends aren’t the Xmas type either! And there is some white business to take care of.
Simplon safari in the shade https://www.strava.com/activities/4519965818
Moving around with a car makes the low-carb eating side of things much easier – and packing in general! Christoph and I head to the Simplonpass for 2-3 days of touring. This area is also influenced by the south-like weather so the snowfall from early December suffices to satisfy our powder-hunger. It is VERY cold. Sunny and cold. This combination will became the norm throughout the season; yet, at this early stages thereof we are somehow ‘caught by surprise’. I am not the only one, by the way. My glucose meter asks to be moved ‘to correct temperature’ hahaha
The day after Christmas we go for a fine safari, tagging 3 peaks with the corresponding downhills. Always cautious with the potential sluff and avalanches, but overall confident with the conditions. Glucose-wise I always find it challenging to manage the uphill/downhill transitions, as well as the more alpine/exposed stuff – which usually triggers a hormone-induced BG rise. It is too cold to inject anything! Moreover, there is a limit to perfection. My blood glucose is in range 3.4-6.8 mmol/L all day long, what else could I ask for??
The year is coming to its end and our plan is to ski ‘till the bitter end’ 😉 Another trip to Engadin! What makes this region very special is that no two villages are the same: different language, mood, spirit… completely unique! This gives the ‘Savognin experience’ a very different flair to the one St Moritz offered just a couple of weeks ago. I arrive on my own – oh dear, that luggage is heavy – but will meet with two good friends there; and will make 2 new ones! Another perk of skimo: it is like a friendship centrifuge. Sure, it puts its endurance to test, but what survives to the test is long-lasting matter.
Day 1 Dec 30th is ‘the social tour’ in the sun. We choose a south face and take it easy up to Piz Surpare (we call it Praline). While skiing down, I notice I am just 2000m of vertical climb away from hitting the 200k in 2020. What if tomorrow we don’t manage to cover such vert? What a pity would that be! It is ‘only 2pm so I ask my friends who wants to join for a second peak. Eeerrr they all choose beer! No problem, I enjoy solitude too. My blood glucose line is perfect, which encourages me to behave and eat my pre-cooked homemade dinner. I am upping the game: now I always pack the camping stove to make instant bouillon and warm up meals on-the-go!
When breakfast is served downstairs – and included in the price – I tend to join the party. Eating whatever doesn’t massively disrupts my glucose values, of course. In Switzerland, it is very common to find cheese and dry meat. By now I do bring my own keto homemade bread – always! My biggest struggle is dairy in the morning… I added a bit of milk to my keto porridge and I had to correct a spike!
Piz d'Agnel, the last one of 2020 https://www.strava.com/activities/4543824561
The boys must be home early, and the bad weather moves in in the afternoon. Two good reasons to start our tour early. Side note: there is always some negotiation re. start time; this swiss people are such early birds! It is, however, very true that the slightest deviation from the plan – and there are maaaany possible deviations – can cause a massive delay. Missing a train or a dinner isn’t a tragedy, but there are tragedy-level threats so better play it safe! We head towards Piz d’Agnel. Skis on from the hotel door. We will meet a total of zero people on the route. We face 3 such ‘deviations’ today:
1. The bad weather comes in much earlier than forecasted. The last hour before the summit is a constant fight against the wind.
2. We are unsure about the way up at one point. We didn’t expect such a ‘critical’ traverse so we invest some time looking for alternatives. Eventually we must go throught the delicate section.
3. While skiing down we must walk over some rocks. When I am putting back on the skis, one of them slips and starts flying dooooown. I freeze. And the a stroke of luck! The ski self-stops (mine have no breaks) 200m below us. Skiing on one leg is very rough, believe me.
We end the tour on time, in one piece and… with 17 vertical meters to spare!!! The decision to add a peak yesterday turned out to be the right one. More meters, more fun! 2000.000m of uphill fun in 2020 ;-)
Peter & Marteen drop me at the supermarket in Savognin. Looking for some New Year’s Eve indulgence I end up buying a mango (ooooops). Insulin does its job but the night isn’t as smooth as usual due to some hypoglycemia. If I recall correctly, the last 6-7 changes of year caught me sleeping. This one will be no different!